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Capital City Sunday: Johnson says wages might be rising too fast; Dems renew call for redistricting changes

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Wisconsin Republicans at the state and federal level want to end the state's acceptance of enhanced unemployment benefits from the federal government.

GOP leaders in the legislature rolled out a bill Tuesday that would cut off the $300 per week federal unemployment boost in Wisconsin. Governor Tony Evers indicated he is all but certain to veto the bill should it reach his desk.

Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) and the rest of the state's Republican congressional delegation also joined the call for Evers to turn away the federal money. They say having total unemployment payouts remain at $16.75 an hour, even as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, makes it impossible for businesses to compete for labor, even if they're trying to pay a decent wage.

"People are literally making more money on unemployment with the plussed-up federal benefits than they made at their job," Johnson said.

Johnson added he's concerned wages rising too much too quickly could bring about inflation, citing a continuing increase in supply prices putting an addition crunch on businesses.

"Increases in wage rates ratchet up and that creates permanent inflation so you may feel good about getting a five, or six, or seven percent raise but if general inflation is six, seven, or eight percent, that increase is just completely wiped out," Johnson said.

Democrats and even other business owners say the labor imbalance is a greater reflection of longstanding inequalities in the U.S. economy that have come to light during the pandemic.

They point largely to the rapidly rising cost of child care, which has outpaced inflation and wage growth. For many women, they say returning to work would essentially mean collecting a check that goes entirely toward covering day care.

"I think it's kind of crappy of anyone to try and ask someone to go back to work to make less than they're making on unemployment," Madison restaurant owner Dave Heide said. "And enough to figure out [without asking] 'how do I do child care for my family?'"

Johnson said the biggest concern though should be the economy hitting a wall due to businesses being unable to fill openings. He maintained the wages should only raise at the rate which companies can afford to pay them.

"Wages are set in the marketplace and businesses pay what wages they can afford based on the competitive situation," he said.

During the interview, Johnson also explained his reasoning for opposing the creation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

"The first problem there is you have congressional leadership, including Speaker Pelosi, naming the commissioners," Johnson said. "Let's face it - Speaker Pelosi, other congressional leaders, were responsible for Capitol security and there were some real breaches so I don't think they should be the people naming these supposedly independent commissioners."

Under the bill, Pelosi would appoint two members of the ten-member commission and would jointly appoint the chair with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

Schumer would pick the other two Democratic members while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would each pick two Republican member. The fifth Republican on the commission would be a joint selection from McCarthy and McConnell.

Johnson said he was more interested in pursuing his own investigation into the Capitol the breach.

"I'm doing my own investigation to find out exactly what happened," Johnson said. "I want a complete and accurate recreation of what happened on January 6 so we have an accurate historical record."

UW-Madison Political Science Professor David Canon said Johnson and other Republicans opposing the commission - which include the state's five congressional Republicans - likely want to instead focus strictly on the building security measures and not the communications before and during the siege between lawmakers and former President Donald Trump.

"It really is a focus on that more narrow question of security at the Capitol, the breakdown of that security, what went wrong and so not looking at motivations," Canon said. "Not looking at the broader picture, and certainly not saying anything about the role of President Trump."

The Lines That Bind

Democrats in the state legislature rolled out a bill to end the practice of lawmakers handpicking who draws their legislative districts, which has long been the case in Wisconsin.

Later this year, the Republican-controlled legislature is set to conduct the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative boundaries. It's a dispute all but certain to wind up before the state supreme court, which earlier this month turned away a conservative push to have any legal challenges to the maps go directly to SCOWIS.

Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) co-authored the bill and insisted it was a worthwhile effort even though it has no chance of passing.

"It's absolutely a means [to nonpartisan redistricting] because the public needs to know there are legislators on their side," Smith said. "That legislators should never be assigned drawing their own districts."

Activists have succeeded in getting voters in 28 counties and 20 municipalities to approve referenda that called for nonpartisan redistricting, including 2020 successes in conservative Adams and Dunn counties, which voted for Trump.

Attorney Rick Esenberg from the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty said there's no true way of knowing if any map maker is acting with entirely nonpartisan interests. He argued keeping lawmakers in charge at least keeps elected officials accountable.

"Everything sounds attractive when you call it non-partisan," Esenberg said.

The Democrats' bill would give map-drawing duties to the Legislative Reference Bureau, which provides extensive research for all legislation and has drawn praise in the past from leaders of both parties.

Supporters of a move to nonpartisan redistricting point to the 2018 governor's race as an example of the scales heavily titled toward Republicans in the legislature. While Evers defeated former Gov. Scott Walker by about one percentage point, Walker carried 63 of the state's 99 Assembly districts.

Political scientists have calculated the 2011 maps drawn by Republicans give themselves an efficiency gap, or advantage, of about 12 percent.

Esenberg rejected the researchers' argument that only a fraction of that gap is explained by liberal voters clustering in urban areas. He argued working to remove the efficiency gap would be equally problematic because it would essentially be an effort to overcompensate for the decisions voters make with regard to where they reside.

"If you see this efficiency gap as a problem, what you are really arguing for is gerrymandering on behalf of- making up this natural disadvantage that Democratic candidates have," Esenberg said. "And that's as much a partisan operation as anything else the Republicans might be accused of doing."

So far, two Republican legislators have committed to supporting the bill, Reps. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) and Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City). Smith said he was hopeful he could get more GOP lawmakers to join the effort.

"We'll keep trying and keep talking to our colleagues on the other side of the aisle," Smith said. "Hopefully their consciences will guide them."

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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